Satyagraha[pronunciation?] (Sanskrit: सत्याग्रह satyāgraha), loosely translated as "insistence on truth satya(truth) agraha(insistence) soul force"[1] or "truth force" is a particular philosophy and practice within the broader overall category generally known as nonviolent resistance or civil resistance. The term "satyagraha" was conceived and developed by Mahatma Gandhi. He deployed satyagraha in the Indian independence movement and also during his earlier struggles in South Africa. Satyagraha theory influenced Nelson Mandela's struggle in South Africa under apartheid, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s campaigns during the civil rights movement in the United States, and many other social justice and similar movements.[2][3] Someone who practices satyagraha is a satyagrahi.


Origin and meaning of name

Gandhi leading Salt Satyagraha, a notable example of Satyagraha

The term originated in a competition in the news-sheet Indian Opinion in South Africa in 1906. It was an adaptation by Gandhi of one of the entries in that competition. "Satyagraha" is a tatpuruṣa compound of the Sanskrit words satya (meaning "truth") and Agraha ("insistence", or "holding firmly to"). For Gandhi, satyagraha went far beyond mere "passive resistance" and became strength in practising non-violent methods. In his words:

Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence, and gave up the use of the phrase “passive resistance”, in connection with it, so much so that even in English writing we often avoided it and used instead the word “satyagraha” itself or some other equivalent English phrase.[4]

In September 1935, a letter to P.K. Rao, Servants of India Society, Gandhi disputed the proposition that his idea of Civil Disobedience was adapted from the writings of Thoreau.

"The statement that I had derived my idea of civil disobedience from the writings of Thoreau is wrong. The resistance to authority in South Africa was well advanced before I got the essay of Thoreau on civil disobedience. But the movement was then known as passive resistance. As it was incomplete I had coined the word satyagraha for the Gujarati readers. When I saw the title of Thoreau’s great essay, I began the use of his phrase to explain our struggle to the English readers. But I found that even civil disobedience failed to convey the full meaning of the struggle. I therefore adopted the phrase civil resistance. Non-violence was always an integral part of our struggle."[5]

Gandhi described it as follows:

I have also called it love-force or soul-force. In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.[6]

Contrast to “passive resistance”

Gandhi distinguished between satyagraha and passive resistance in the following letter:

"I have drawn the distinction between passive resistance as understood and practised in the West and satyagraha before I had evolved the doctrine of the latter to its full logical and spiritual extent. I often used “passive resistance” and “satyagraha” as synonymous terms: but as the doctrine of satyagraha developed, the expression “passive resistance” ceases even to be synonymous, as passive resistance has admitted of violence as in the case of suffragettes and has been universally acknowledged to be a weapon of the weak. Moreover, passive resistance does not necessarily involve complete adherence to truth under every circumstance. Therefore it is different from satyagraha in three essentials: Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatsoever; and it ever insists upon truth. I think I have now made the distinction perfectly clear."[7]

Satyagraha theory

Defining success

Assessing the extent to which Gandhi's ideas of satyagraha were or were not successful in the Indian independence struggle is a complex task. Judith Brown has suggested that "this is a political strategy and technique which, for its outcomes, depends of historical specificities."[8] The view taken by Gandhi differs from the idea that the goal in any conflict is necessarily to defeat the opponent or frustrate the opponent’s objectives, or to meet one’s own objectives despite the efforts of the opponent to obstruct these. In satyagraha, by contrast, these are not the goals. “The Satyagrahi’s object is to convert, not to coerce, the wrong-doer.”[9] Success is defined as cooperating with the opponent to meet a just end that the opponent is unwittingly obstructing. The opponent must be converted, at least as far as to stop obstructing the just end, for this cooperation to take place.

Means and ends

The theory of satyagraha sees means and ends as inseparable. The means used to obtain an end are wrapped up in and attached to that end. Therefore, it is contradictory to try to use unjust means to obtain justice or to try to use violence to obtain peace. As Gandhi wrote: “They say, 'means are, after all, means'. I would say, 'means are, after all, everything'. As the means so the end...”[10]

Gandhi used an example to explain this:

If I want to deprive you of your watch, I shall certainly have to fight for it; if I want to buy your watch, I shall have to pay for it; and if I want a gift, I shall have to plead for it; and, according to the means I employ, the watch is stolen property, my own property, or a donation.[11]

Gandhi rejected the idea that injustice should, or even could, be fought against “by any means necessary” — if you use violent, coercive, unjust means, whatever ends you produce will necessarily embed that injustice. To those who preached violence and called nonviolent actionists cowards, he replied: “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence....I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour....But I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment.”[12]

Satyagraha versus Duragraha

The essence of Satyagraha is that it seeks to eliminate antagonisms without harming the antagonists themselves, as opposed to violent resistance, which is meant to cause harm to the antagonist. A Satyagrahi therefore does not seek to end or destroy the relationship with the antagonist, but instead seeks to transform or “purify” it to a higher level. A euphemism sometimes used for Satyagraha is that it is a “silent force” or a “soul force” (a term also used by Martin Luther King Jr. during his famous “I Have a Dream” speech). It arms the individual with moral power rather than physical power. Satyagraha is also termed a “universal force,” as it essentially “makes no distinction between kinsmen and strangers, young and old, man and woman, friend and foe.”[13]

Gandhi contrasted satyagraha (holding on to truth) with “duragraha” (holding on by force), as in protest meant more to harass than enlighten opponents. He wrote: “There must be no impatience, no barbarity, no insolence, no undue pressure. If we want to cultivate a true spirit of democracy, we cannot afford to be intolerant. Intolerance betrays want of faith in one's cause.”[14]

Civil disobedience and non-cooperation as practised under Satyagraha are based on the “law of suffering”,[15] a doctrine that the endurance of suffering is a means to an end. This end usually implies a moral upliftment or progress of an individual or society. Therefore, non-cooperation in Satyagraha is in fact a means to secure the cooperation of the opponent consistently with truth and justice.

Satyagraha in large-scale conflict

When using satyagraha in a large-scale political conflict involving civil disobedience, Gandhi believed that the satyagrahis must undergo training to ensure discipline. He wrote that it is “only when people have proved their active loyalty by obeying the many laws of the State that they acquire the right of Civil Disobedience.”[16]

He therefore made part of the discipline that satyagrahis:

  1. appreciate the other laws of the State and obey them voluntarily
  2. tolerate these laws, even when they are inconvenient
  3. be willing to undergo suffering, loss of property, and to endure the suffering that might be inflicted on family and friends[16]

This obedience has to be not merely grudging, but extraordinary:

…an honest, respectable man will not suddenly take to stealing whether there is a law against stealing or not, but this very man will not feel any remorse for failure to observe the rule about carrying headlights on bicycles after dark.… But he would observe any obligatory rule of this kind, if only to escape the inconvenience of facing a prosecution for a breach of the rule. Such compliance is not, however, the willing and spontaneous obedience that is required of a Satyagrahi.[17]

Principles for Satyagrahis

Gandhi envisioned satyagraha as not only a tactic to be used in acute political struggle, but as a universal solvent for injustice and harm. He felt that it was equally applicable to large-scale political struggle and to one-on-one interpersonal conflicts and that it should be taught to everyone.[18]

He founded the Sabarmati Ashram to teach satyagraha. He asked satyagrahis to follow the following principles (Yamas described in Yoga Sutra):[19]

  1. Nonviolence (ahimsa)
  2. Truth — this includes honesty, but goes beyond it to mean living fully in accord with and in devotion to that which is true
  3. Non-stealing
  4. Chastity (brahmacharya) — this includes sexual chastity, but also the subordination of other sensual desires to the primary devotion to truth
  5. Non-possession (not the same as poverty)
  6. Body-labor or bread-labor
  7. Control of the palate
  8. Fearlessness
  9. Equal respect for all religions
  10. Economic strategy such as boycotts (swadeshi)
  11. Freedom from untouchability

On another occasion, he listed seven rules as “essential for every Satyagrahi in India”:[20]

  1. must have a living faith in God
  2. must believe in truth and non-violence and have faith in the inherent goodness of human nature which he expects to evoke by suffering in the satyagraha effort
  3. must be leading a chaste life, and be willing to die or lose all his possessions
  4. must be a habitual khadi wearer and spinner
  5. must abstain from alcohol and other intoxicants
  6. must willingly carry out all the rules of discipline that are issued
  7. must obey the jail rules unless they are specially devised to hurt his self respect

Rules for satyagraha campaigns

Gandhi proposed a series of rules for satyagrahis to follow in a resistance campaign:[13]

  1. harbour no anger
  2. suffer the anger of the opponent
  3. never retaliate to assaults or punishment; but do not submit, out of fear of punishment or assault, to an order given in anger
  4. voluntarily submit to arrest or confiscation of your own property
  5. if you are a trustee of property, defend that property (non-violently) from confiscation with your life
  6. do not curse or swear
  7. do not insult the opponent
  8. neither salute nor insult the flag of your opponent or your opponent’s leaders
  9. if anyone attempts to insult or assault your opponent, defend your opponent (non-violently) with your life
  10. as a prisoner, behave courteously and obey prison regulations (except any that are contrary to self-respect)
  11. as a prisoner, do not ask for special favourable treatment
  12. as a prisoner, do not fast in an attempt to gain conveniences whose deprivation does not involve any injury to your self-respect
  13. joyfully obey the orders of the leaders of the civil disobedience action
  14. do not pick and choose amongst the orders you obey; if you find the action as a whole improper or immoral, sever your connection with the action entirely
  15. do not make your participation conditional on your comrades taking care of your dependents while you are engaging in the campaign or are in prison; do not expect them to provide such support
  16. do not become a cause of communal quarrels
  17. do not take sides in such quarrels, but assist only that party which is demonstrably in the right; in the case of inter-religious conflict, give your life to protect (non-violently) those in danger on either side
  18. avoid occasions that may give rise to communal quarrels
  19. do not take part in processions that would wound the religious sensibilities of any community

Satyagraha and the civil rights movement in the United States

Satyagraha theory also influenced many other movements of civil resistance. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his autobiography about Gandhi's influence on his developing ideas regarding the civil rights movement in the United States:

Like most people, I had heard of Gandhi, but I had never studied him seriously. As I read I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. I was particularly moved by his Salt March to the Sea and his numerous fasts. The whole concept of Satyagraha (Satya is truth which equals love, and agraha is force; Satyagraha, therefore, means truth force or love force) was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. ... It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking.[21]

Satyagraha and the Jewish Holocaust

In view of the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Germany, Gandhi offered satyagraha as a method of combating oppression and genocide, stating:

If I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest Gentile German might, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment. And for doing this I should not wait for the fellow Jews to join me in civil resistance, but would have confidence that in the end the rest were bound to follow my example. If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now. And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy [...] the calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the God-fearing, death has no terror.[22]

When Gandhi was criticized for these statements, he responded in another article entitled “Some Questions Answered”:

Friends have sent me two newspaper cuttings criticizing my appeal to the Jews. The two critics suggest that in presenting non-violence to the Jews as a remedy against the wrong done to them, I have suggested nothing new... What I have pleaded for is renunciation of violence of the heart and consequent active exercise of the force generated by the great renunciation.”[23]

In a similar vein, anticipating a possible attack on India by Japan during World War II, Gandhi recommended satyagraha as a means of national defense (what is now sometimes called "defence by civil resistance" or "social defence"):

…there should be unadulterated non-violent non-cooperation, and if the whole of India responded and unanimously offered it, I should show that, without shedding a single drop of blood, Japanese arms – or any combination of arms – can be sterilized. That involves the determination of India not to give quarter on any point whatsoever and to be ready to risk loss of several million lives. But I would consider that cost very cheap and victory won at that cost glorious. That India may not be ready to pay that price may be true. I hope it is not true, but some such price must be paid by any country that wants to retain its independence. After all, the sacrifice made by the Russians and the Chinese is enormous, and they are ready to risk all. The same could be said of the other countries also, whether aggressors or defenders. The cost is enormous. Therefore, in the non-violent technique I am asking India to risk no more than other countries are risking and which India would have to risk even if she offered armed resistance.[24]

Gandhi's combination of renunciation of violence with active acceptance of suffering also received support from Jewish thinkers. Psychiatrist Victor Frankl and psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, both Holocaust survivors, confirmed Gandhi's experience that individuals who neither submit passively nor retaliate to violence find in themselves a new sense of strength, dignity, and courage.[2] Gandhi's approach has been compared with Frankl's.

See also


  1. ^ McKay, John P.; Hill, Bennett D.; Buckler, John; Ebrey, Patricia Buckley; Beck, Roger B.; Crowston, Clare Haru; Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. A History of World Societies: From 1775 to Present . Eighth edition. Volume C – From 1775 to the Present. (2009). Bedford/St. Martin's: Boston/New York. ISBN 978-0-312-68298-9. ISBN 0-312-68298-0. "Meanwhile, Gandhi was searching for a spiritual theory of social action. He studied Hindu and Christian teachings, and gradually developed a weapon for the weak that he called Satyagraha. Gandhi conceived of Satyagraha, loosely translated as "Soul Force," as a means of striving for truth and social justice through love, suffering, and conversion of the oppressor. Its tactic is active nonviolent resistance." (McKay 859).
  2. ^ "Gandhi’s satyagraha became a major tool in the Indian struggle against British imperialism and has since been adopted by protest groups in other countries." Date accessed: 14 September 2010.
  3. ^ "In this respect Satyagraha or non-violent resistance, as conceived by Gandhiji, has an important lesson for pacifists and war-resisters of the West. Western pacifists have so far proved ineffective because they have thought that war can be resisted by mere propaganda, conscientious objection, and organization for settling disputes." Date accessed: 14 September 2010.
  4. ^ M.K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa, Navajivan, Ahmedabad, 1928, pp. 109-10.
  5. ^ Mohandas K. Gandhi, letter to P. Kodanda Rao, 10 September 1935; in Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, electronic edition, vol. 67, p. 400.[1]
  6. ^ Gandhi, M.K. Statement to Disorders Inquiry Committee January 5, 1920 satyagrahi valvuloplasty (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi vol. 19, p. 206)
  7. ^ Gandhi, M.K. “Letter to Mr. ——” 25 January 1920 (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi vol. 19, p. 350)
  8. ^ Brown, Judith M., "Gandhi and Civil Resistance in India, 1917-47: Key Issues", in Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash (eds.), Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, Oxford University Press, 2009 p. 57
  9. ^ Gandhi, M.K. “Requisite Qualifications” Harijan 25 March 1939
  10. ^ R. K. Prabhu & U. R. Rao, editors; from section “The Gospel Of Sarvodaya, of the book The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, Ahemadabad, India, Revised Edition, 1967.
  11. ^ Gandhi, M.K. “Brute Force”, Chapter XVI of Hind Swaraj, 1909 (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi vol. 10, p. 287)
  12. ^ R. K. Prabhu & U. R. Rao, editors; from section “Between Cowardice and Violence,” of the book The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, Ahemadabad, India, Revised Edition, 1967.
  13. ^ a b Gandhi, M.K. “Some Rules of Satyagraha” Young India (Navajivan) 23 February 1930 (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi vol. 48, p. 340)
  14. ^ R. K. Prabhu & U. R. Rao, editors; from section “Power of Satyagraha,” of the book The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, Ahemadabad, India, Revised Edition, 1967.
  15. ^ Gandhi, M.K. “The Law of Suffering” Young India 16 June 1920
  16. ^ a b Gandhi, M.K. “Pre-requisites for Satyagraha” Young India 1 August 1925
  17. ^ Gandhi, M.K. “A Himalayan Miscalculation” in The Story of My Experiments with Truth Chapter 33
  18. ^ Gandhi, M.K. “The Theory and Practice of Satyagraha” Indian Opinion 1914
  19. ^ Gandhi, M.K. Non-violent Resistance (Satyagraha) (1961) p. 37
  20. ^ Gandhi, M.K. “Qualifications for Satyagraha” Young India 8 August 1929
  21. ^ King, Jr., Martin Luther (1998). Carson, Clayborne. ed. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.. pp. 23–24. ISBN 0446524123. 
  22. ^ Gandhi, M.K. “The Jews” Harijan 26 November 1938 (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi vol. 74, p. 240)
  23. ^ Gandhi, M.K. “Some Questions Answered” Harijan 17 December 1938 (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi vol. 74, p. 297-8)
  24. ^ Gandhi, M.K. “Non-violent Non-cooperation” Harijan 24 May 1942, p. 167 (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi vol. 82, p. 286; interview conducted 16 May 1942)

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  • Satyagraha — (Sanskrit: सत्याग्रह satyāgraha) ist eine von Mahatma Gandhi entwickelte Grundhaltung, die (als politische Strategie) im Kern darauf beruht, die Vernunft und das Gewissen des Gegners anzusprechen durch die eigene Gewaltlosigkeit (non violence,… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Satyagraha — Saltar a navegación, búsqueda Satiagraja es una variedad de resistencia sin violencia desarrollada por el indio Mahatma Gandhi (1869 1948). सत्याग्रह, en escritura devánagari. satyāgraha, en el sistema IAST de transliteración. Gandhi desarrolló… …   Wikipedia Español

  • satyagraha — Indian form of passive resistance, 1920, in writings of M.K. Gandhi, from Skt. satyagraha insistence on truth, from satya truth + agraha pertinacity …   Etymology dictionary

  • Satyagraha —   [Sanskrit »Ergreifen der Wahrheit«], Zentralgedanke der Philosophie M. Gandhis, die in der gewaltlosen Durchsetzung des als wahr Erkannten gipfelt; der Begriff wurde v. a. durch die gleichnamige, von Gandhi angeregte Bewegung bekannt, die… …   Universal-Lexikon

  • satyagraha — [sut′yə gru΄hə] n. [< Hindi, lit., a grasping for truth < Sans satyā, truth + graha, grasping] the doctrine of Mohandas Gandhi, emphasizing passive resistance and noncooperation …   English World dictionary

  • Satyagraha — /sut yeuh gru heuh, seuht yah greuh /, n. (sometimes l.c.) (in India) the policy of passive resistance inaugurated by Mohandas Gandhi in 1919 as a method of gaining political and social reforms. [1915 20; < Hindi, equiv. to Skt satya truth +… …   Universalium

  • Satyagraha — La Satyagraha (du Sanskrit सत्याग्रह) ou « étreinte de la vérité » (satya = vérité, agraha = saisie) est le principe de non violence par la désobéissance civile que Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi a instauré. Gandhi notait: « En… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • satyagraha — noun Etymology: New Sanskrit satyāgraha, from Sanskrit satya truth + āgraha persistence Date: 1920 pressure for social and political reform through friendly passive resistance practiced by M. K. Gandhi and his followers in India …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • satyagraha — noun The policy of nonviolent resistance as used by during the struggle for Indian independence. We also discussed whether the campaign should follow the Gandhian principles of non violence or what the Mahatma called satyagraha, a non violence… …   Wiktionary

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